SOUTHERN UTE RESERVATION — With Western water challenges in mind, Lorelei Cloud has a message for policymakers: There should be room for partnerships — not fear — when Native American tribes join the negotiating table.
In March, Cloud became one of the newest members of the state’s top water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, when Gov. Jared Polis appointed her to represent the San Miguel-Dolores-San Juan drainage basin in southwestern Colorado. She’s also the first known tribal member to hold a seat on the board since its creation in 1937.
“My role in that position is to represent everybody in the basin, regardless of how they think about me or feel about me, or think that my views may be different than theirs. I still need to represent them,” said Cloud, a Southern Ute tribal member and vice chair of the Southern Ute Tribal Council.
Her appointment comes at a time when tensions over water in the West are high. The Colorado River Basin, which spans seven states in the Southwest and portions of northern Mexico, is two decades into a severe, prolonged drought. That drought plus decades of overuse have depleted the basin’s water storage and jeopardized the future water security for millions of people.
As states and the federal government scramble to adapt, 30 tribes within the Colorado River Basin are working to be involved in policymaking after decades of exclusion, particularly as water officials renegotiate a set of interim management guidelines that will expire in 2026. The guidelines regulate the flow of water to users and decide water cutbacks in response to drought conditions. The tribes are also pushing to assert their own water rights — which equal roughly 25% of the water supply and are among the most senior rights in the basin.
Part of the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s purpose is to protect the state’s apportionment in dealings with other Colorado River Basin stakeholders. The 15-member board also sets water policy within the state, funds water projects statewide and works on issues related to watershed protection, stream restoration, flood mitigation and drought planning.
As one of nine basin representatives on the board, Cloud is responsible for elevating the top issues for water users across the San Miguel-Dolores-San Juan drainage basin, which reaches 10 counties and two Native American reservations and includes cities like Cortez, Durango and Telluride. She will hold the unpaid, voluntary position for three years.
Cloud, whose leadership experience also spans the Indigenous Women’s Leadership Network, the Water and Tribes Initiative and the Ten Tribes Partnership, recently spoke with The Colorado Sun at her office on the Southern Ute Reservation’s tribal campus.
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
The Colorado Sun: How do you feel knowing that you’re the first tribal member to serve on the Colorado Water Conservation Board?
Lorelei Cloud: A little taken aback, knowing this little Ute girl’s got this position. It’s a little overwhelming, but I also have to remember I’ve done that in several other positions as well and this is just another part of that. At the same time if I don’t (do it), I mean, who else is going to have our voice?
Becky Mitchell — she’s on the water conservation board and now she’s our state commissioner (for the Upper Colorado River Commission) — she’s elevated the tribal voice on a higher level than we could possibly get to. … Other tribes don’t have that type of relationship with their states, and we do. We’re very proud that we have that relationship with our state. I think it’s made my transition into this role easier.
Sun: You’ve held, and continue to hold, many leadership positions tied to water issues. What makes you feel connected to water and water issues?
Cloud: So as a Ute woman and as a Ute member, I feel like I’m very connected to water and to our environment. I grew up in a very traditional Ute home, practicing our Ute ways, and so water was always a part of it — also the other elements and knowing that we were the first caretakers of this land and we need to continue that duty. Taking on this role in water has been just another aspect of that.
Sun: Can you give us an overview of some of the top water issues in your basin and for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe?
Cloud: I’m still learning in this role and figuring out what has happened before I got onto the board. But in the entire basin, not just in my area or for the tribe, the big issue right now is the interim guidelines for the Colorado River. That’s, I think, a main concern for everyone and how that’s going to affect us now that the Bureau of Reclamation has released their draft SEIS (supplemental environmental impact statement). …
Right now, because we had a really good winter, everybody’s got water. I think right now some of those fears are lessened, but we don’t know what that next year’s going to bring. That’s always on everybody’s forefront, not just in a tribal perspective or my regional area, but it’s everybody.
Sun: Do you think the CWCB should have a permanent seat for a tribal representative?
Cloud: Yes. For many years, tribes have been asking for a seat at the policymaking table, and this is just a small part of what that could be. If there was a tribal component specifically for Southern Ute and Ute Mountain, I don’t think it would impact the whole state, but it gives a different perspective as to how tribes view water and that they do have a voice at that level of making policy within the state. …
Everybody’s really receptive to having a tribal voice, and it’s a lot of learning on their side as well. When you add on a tribal appointment specifically, I think that just adds a greater level of understanding that the state wants to hear from everybody. Because ultimately, tribal members are still citizens of the state. And so why not include them?
Sun: Part of your role is to represent stakeholders who have conflicting water interests. For example, if tribes fully utilize their senior water rights, it will have a major impact for users with more junior rights, as you have stated in the past. How do you plan to resolve issues when people’s needs conflict?
Cloud: You have to give everybody the opportunity to be heard — a lot of times, that’s all they want is to be heard. Their points could be completely valid, and I don’t know that until I listen to them. Just like in my role as a tribal leader, everybody’s voice counts. They may be different from mine, but I still need to listen to them. … When you’re in these types of leadership roles, you learn that sometimes those that come at you the hardest — those are lessons that you need to learn from, and sometimes those are your opportunities to grow.
Sun: So if Southern Ute water interests conflict with other stakeholder groups in the basin, how will you balance your CWCB responsibilities with your role on tribal council?
Cloud: If there’s a situation where all of those meet or they intersect, I would take on my appointment from the state just because I know that there’s other tribal council members that … can speak on the tribe’s behalf. But I would definitely remove myself from the tribal component because I did take the challenge and the opportunity to be on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. … I don’t think that that’s going to happen very often or at all, but that’s my game plan, just to remove myself.
Sun: In a 2022 opinion piece in The Colorado Sun, you emphasized collaboration and said that starts with recognizing the role of tribal nations in shaping the future of the Colorado River Basin. What are some of the past challenges in recognizing that role? What do you believe the next steps should be?
Cloud: It goes back all the way back to the 1922 (Colorado River) Compact. Tribes were left out of that compact; we weren’t even considered citizens at that point. Knowing that next year is going to be 100 years since Native people have become citizens in the United States — that you’re 100 years behind policymaking — that’s a challenge that everybody has to overcome. …
The Gila River community, they’ve shown that there’s true collaboration, also with the Colorado River Indian Tribe. We should do that in the Upper Basin. There’s opportunities for us to be partners. Fear should be out of the picture. We’re all in this together, regardless. If we all run out of water, it’s gonna affect every single one of us, not just a certain group. Climate change doesn’t look at race, doesn’t look at state lines, tribal reservations. It’s going to affect everybody, so why can’t we all work together? There’s challenges in just working together that have to be overcome.
Sun: And for specific next steps?
Cloud: This is part of it — tribal members taking on these leadership roles in these different committees. Again, I’m thankful that the state of Colorado was open enough to have a tribal member be put in that type of role. Other states aren’t willing to do that. Colorado has always been a trailblazer in pushing boundaries, and so that’s just part of it. If all the tribes had those opportunities within the other basin states, I think you would have better collaboration.
Sun: Anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to highlight?
Cloud: I just think that it’s important for people not to be fearful of Native people taking on these roles. Again, we’re the original caretakers of this land, so why wouldn’t we take on a management role like this? No one should fear me. I’m their voice, and we all need to figure out how we can work together. It’s not ‘Draw the line in the sand, and this is the way it is.’ We can’t do that. We’re way beyond that right now. We need to just work together and figure out how we’re going to save our river, save our water. Because ultimately, we can have all the water rights in the world, but that’s not going to do us any good unless we develop them and we can get the water up to where it really needs to be.
Sun: Is that where the fear comes up, the water rights discussion?
Cloud: Both tribes have senior, federal water rights, which means we can’t lose them. And so when the river has been over-allocated, everybody’s using that tribal water for free. Their fear is that once we put our water to use, they’re not going to have anything. Well, you can’t take away the tribe’s rights to develop their water and do what they need to for their people. How are you going to figure that out downstream? It’s not their fault, either, but we’re gonna have to figure it out. That’s why the management decisions in these interim guidelines are so important.
Sun: How do you keep the momentum going, for yourself and those you represent, to continue to work on these issues that have been going on for so long?
Cloud: For me, honestly, you should never give up regardless of the situation. Having water, being in drought, having a good snow season — you always have to fight because so many people are counting on us, any leader in the basin, to make the best decisions for everybody. It’s not just the people now, it’s our future generations. They’re counting on us to make those decisions for them right now. …
My dream is that we fix this, so that we never have to come back and have the types of negotiations that we’ve had now, where some are holding out or some don’t want to collaborate. I hope that everybody can come together, (that) we can find a solution that’s going to impact everybody in the positive. Everybody’s a winner, no one’s a loser. Our future descendants, they’re gonna look back at us, and I hope that we’ve done them justice in creating something that they can be proud of.